As winter gives way to spring, many of us are faced with the ubiquitous question: What are we doing this summer? There are lots of options, of course, but for those of us who have never ventured farther up Prospect Street than Rosenkranz Hall, many of our internship prospects fall under the umbrella category of “public service.” Idealistic do-gooders and wannabe bureaucrats alike find themselves attracted to — and applying to — the same sorts of positions: internships in congressional offices, committees or agencies. Frankly, the work involved, even if we don’t like to admit it, is all pretty much the same: Interns mainly answer phone calls from irate constituents, draft letters and take notes.
Another common denominator? Pay, or rather, lack thereof. The vast majority of governmental internship programs pay nothing while still structuring positions as 40-hour-per-week, full-time jobs. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Government budgets are tight, so there’s no way they would be able to accomodate a real salary for interns. And, the experience these positions offer has value to be realized later in our careers. And, no matter what, Yale has enough funding to make congressional stipends moot, anyway. I get it because I told myself the same thing when I answered thousands of phone calls in Sen. Chuck Schumer’s, D-N.Y., office and when I was asked to take on the work of uninterested associates in my office at the New York State Education Department. In both roles, I dipped into my own pocket — often — to pay for required travel for work. This is just how it is, I told myself. A rite of passage, maybe.
Still, as I reflect on my past summers in public-sector internships, as I reflect on the hundreds of hours of work I did for no pay, I encourage Yale students to consider something else. Consider turning down any internship, public or private sector, that doesn’t compensate you for your work.
The reasons to refuse these types of positions are plenty, but here are two.
First, unpaid internships are only accessible to those who can afford to go a summer without pay. It is true that Yale offers significant funding for these types of positions, like the Domestic Summer Award and academic departmental funding. In that sense, Yale has taken the burden of making the unpaid internship complex at least slightly more equitable upon itself. But Yale is the exception. Most of the thousands of college students flocking to Washington, D.C., to shuffle around the Capitol and to open mail do so on the backs of parents who view these experiences as an investment, just as they view college itself. Obviously, this in itself limits access to only those from wealthy families. But it also misses the point of an internship. Subsidizing an unpaid internship implies that the position is some sort of experiential learning or real-world education. Yet, as I reflect on what I actually did, day to day, in public sector offices, I worked more than anything else. These internships were jobs, not experiences. There were expectations I had to meet, supervisors I had to impress and projects I had to complete. This type of work was not a privilege but a responsibility. The notion that my parents — rather than my employer — would have to foot the bill is counterintuitive.
The second reason you should refuse an unpaid internship is much more principled, more ambiguous. Organized labor in America was built on the idea that the value added by workers to organizations ought to be formally and comprehensively recognized by pay and benefits. Embedded in work is sacrifice, and, as the idea goes, that sacrifice should be compensated. To understand that sacrifice — the sacrifice you make as you painstakingly take notes for your member of Congress in that mundane committee meeting, as you stay late in the office to sort through and log yet another pile of mail, as you manage the death threats, the complicated casework, and the complaints that constituents lob at you when you take their phone calls — necessitates you to assert your worth. And that worth should be compensated not just by experience, not just by mentorship, but by money.
This isn’t a radical idea, and a few members of Congress from across the political spectrum, for example, have already begun compensating their interns. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., pays her interns $15 per hour. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, pays hers, too. And a new push in Congress will potentially allocate intern pay to congressional office budgets. Still, the vast majority of these positions — indeed, the vast majority of those that hundreds of Yalies are applying to right now — pay nothing. Until they do, consider something else: something that allows you to assert your worth and demand that it be compensated accordingly.
Emil Friedman is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs monthly. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .